“What does it feel like?” Jillian asked.
“Like nothing at all,” said Jack. “Until I try to think about it. Then it gets a bit headachy.” He squinted into the distance, looking at nothing but the blank green side of an Efbaum building. “I certainly do remember the events of this morning...huhh!” He flinched. “Well. Even discussing it in those vague terms carries a bit of a physical cost. Quite a powerful spell.”
“Brother Labeler,” said Marie solemnly, “he‘s serious about his croft.”
The Signamancer had spent the last hour in a Thinkamancy link-up with Charlie, administering a kind of unbreakable magical contract they were calling a “Deal of a Lifetime.” Marie and Jillian were among the last who had not yet signed.
“Heh,” said Jillian, catching Jack‘s eyes. “That‘s just what–” Jack gave her a tiny shake of his head. “...I‘ve heard said about you, Marie.”
Marie nodded. “Each discipline comes with its buhden. Special knowledge you cannot share. It shapes you.” She looked down at the paving stones of the courtyard. “Disconnects you.”
A light, crisp breeze swirled through, still carrying a hint of smoke and flowers. Jillian‘s stomach tightened. Her temples went clammy in the wind.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know. And you, especially, right? You see the future but you can‘t talk about it, or you‘ll...make it worse.”
Marie threw her a worried glance, and nodded. Jack watched them both.
“But you got this wrong, didn‘t you?” Jillian asked, gesturing around with her hand. “You said my father would croak, and I‘d become Queen of Faq.” Marie opened her mouth, shaking her head in protest, but Jillian cut her off. “You specifically said Haffaton would conquer Faq. Didn‘t you?”
“Yes, and it did,” said Marie.
“But then Faq conquered Haffaton right back,” said Jillian. “We won. You didn‘t Predict that. And the King didn‘t fall, either.”
“These ah the ways of Prediction.”
“Including being wrong.”
“About specifics?” Marie straightened her shoulders defensively. “Yes, all the time. About the how and the when and the where, suhtainly.”
“Not the what. Or the why?”
Marie raised her eyebrows. “The why is always the same. Fate is fate.”
“Marie,” said Jillian, leaning forward on the stone bench, “I don‘t want what the King wants. I wanna leave Faq and go off on my own. He offered me that once today. I‘m gonna ask him to let me found a side somewhere in all this Haffaton territory. I can protect his flanks! Do you think that‘s possible? I mean I...I don‘t think I can go back to the way things were. That‘s crazy. I can‘t go back. I don‘t even belong here.”
“Give me yoah hand.”
Marie tilted back her head and gazed into Jillian‘s eyes. Patches of bright sky shone as gleams upon the surface of the Predictamancer‘s ivory-white eyes. Past Marie‘s shoulder, Jillian saw Wanda approaching the patio from the direction of the Wizard‘s Hall. Her oath must be complete.
“I don‘t think you should do that,” she told Jillian.
“But I could,” she said. “He‘d let me.”
“You always have a choice,” shrugged Marie. “Thot‘s a bad choice, I think.”
Jillian scrunched her lips in frustration. “Marie, can I break the Prediction about becoming Queen of Faq or not?”
“A Predictamancer‘s function is to advise,” said the Lady Firebaugh. She stepped between potted shrubs and put her hand on Marie‘s shoulder. “You may heed the advice, or take the hard way. Labeler will see you now, Marie.”
As Marie rose, Wanda looked Jillian straight in the eye. “Don‘t take the hard way, Chief Jillian. Whatever it is. I would hope you‘d know better by now.”
“I dunno,” said Jillian with a lopsided smile. “So far it‘s been a real trip.”
She found King Banhammer on a straw mat in a vegetable garden, legs folded in meditation, watching the sun set over the walls of his only city. She didn‘t have a lot of respect for his practices, his habits, or his outlook. But somehow she still held her father in awe. This man had ordered her to exist. She served at his command.
She stood by the grapevine trellis and waited. The turn would end at sundown, but she could leave anytime before that and still use her full move, if he would let her go.
“The clanging of your armor might as well be a herald‘s horn, Princess,” said the King, without turning his head.
She took it as an invitation to approach, and entered the garden. Some awful, needy part of her mind made her glance at each growing plant just to make sure it wasn‘t a heroine bud.
“First words you‘ve said to me since the smoke cleared,” she said, stepping up behind him. The King had announced his plan to all, but had silently ordered Jillian to hold her tongue. They would raze el-Efbaum. Faq would be recreated as it had been: three cities in a hidden valley. Charlie would pledge funds to rebuild Faq, and swear a lifetime oath never to attack it, or disclose its location, or aid any side in disturbing it. In return, each person present at the trial would pledge never to reveal what they knew of Charlie‘s past. The Court of Faq would not re-emerge into the world until it had become sufficiently enlightened to show the way for all.
Earlier–during her enforced silence–Jillian had seen her dream of building Faq into a powerhouse side evaporate. But she had formed a new plan, to protect Faq from without, while being the warrior queen she was popped to become.
Her father‘s permission was all that stood in the way. He sat in placid silence, eyeing the orange sky, saying nothing. She had thought he might at least turn around to look at her.
“So, uh... How‘d you like to never have to speak to me again?”
Banhammer drew in a long breath through his nose, and exhaled the same way.
“That day will come, daughter. However the Titans decree it. It will bring a sort of peace, but I do not find joy in anticipating it.”
She wrinkled her brow. “Really? I figured after today...”
“Today was an avalanche. Tomorrow may be a still lake.”
He still had not looked at her. She wasn‘t sure where to look for the next conversational foothold here. Long moments of silence passed, until she decided she was tired of standing behind him. She walked around and stood in front of his sunset, casting a long shadow on him. She was suddenly aware of how loud her armor actually sounded in the stillness.
“The thing is, daddy... I want to go. I want to leave Faq and start a new side. I can be a buffer to you. If any new sides pop up, they‘ll have to come through me first! See?” He closed his eyes, his expression remaining peaceful. “Spin me off. It‘s the perfect time for it, with nobody else out there.”
“I‘m told that you have not signed your Deal of a Lifetime,” said the King, not opening his eyes. “Is that true?”
“Yeah,” said Jillian. “I wanted to talk to you first.”
“Our deal with Charlie is contingent upon all parties agreeing.”
“Yeah, you said.”
“Much depends upon it.” His voice remained low and calm.
“I don‘t actually like anything that depends on it. I actually think Your Wisdom‘s wisdom is pretty...questionable right now.
“I mean, okay you don‘t want to conquer and rule. But that‘s what you have to do, as a King. That‘s the only way to security. That‘s what the side requires. So my sense of Duty is not really thrilled with the idea of trusting the Kingdom to Charlie‘s infinite loving protection. I‘m not actually feeling compelled to sign on.”
She‘d rambled, without any obvious reaction from her father. And now he sat there, perfectly still, with his eyes closed. Doing nothing. Seeing nothing.
“Leave this garden,” he said at last. “I will speak again with Charlie.”
Without any clear idea of where to go, Jillian headed out into the city again, wandering aimlessly.
No, she knew where she was going. Her feet were taking her toward the main gate. Maybe some buds had survived the fire. She could go out to the Garden and see for herself. The fact that there was an army of High Elves posted outside didn‘t seem to matter right now. Maybe she could parley with them or something. Maybe they‘d picked a few and would sell them to her...
The Archons caught up to her before she‘d gone six blocks.
“Chief Warlord,” said the brunette. Carnie. They descended around her in the street. “A word, please.”
She eyed the “allied” unit dubiously. “Yeah?”
“We understand you‘re having trouble deciding to sign on,” said Carnie, her hands folded in a pose that said let‘s make a deal.
“Yeah,” said Jillian. “I don‘t like it.”
The Archon‘s face softened into what must be a very practiced look of sympathy. “That‘s perfectly understandable, Jillian. If I might call you that.”
Jillian narrowed her eyes but did not reply.
“It is an enormous, almost unprecedented personal commitment. But Charlie has authorized me to sweeten the offer just a bit for you. That is, for you personally.”
Jillian hated dealing with Charlescomm. It just went against her grain. She steeled herself to reject the coming offer, whatever it was. Everyone was always pushing her. This time, she would decide something on her own, without any further enticements or threats, thank you Charlie.
But the Archon reached inside her blazer and pulled out something glorious, cupping it in the palm of her hand. “We understand you‘ve developed an affinity for these,” said Carnie, holding up a perfect pink flower.